Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut tore into Mason with a blistering attack, pointing out that he himself had "never owned a slave" and thus "could not judge of the effects of slavery on character." He challenged Mason not only to attack slavery "in a moral light," but to "go farther and free those already in the country."
But Mason did not. And the episode stands as a metaphor for the country's failure to erase the legacies of slavery. Mason had been the architect of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which declared on June 12, 1776--in language echoed less than a month later in the Declaration of Independence--that "all men are naturally equal." So he felt compelled to speak out against the odious institution, just as other Americans--having proclaimed "that all men are created equal"--have felt compelled to decry first slavery and then discrimination on a moral level.
But on a practical level, Mason had to consider how to create broad support for the fledgling government, and this meant appeasing the slaveholding Southern states to prevent their bolting the convention.
The debate went on and on. Northern delegates, knowing that Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina would not join the new nation if slavery or the slave trade were outlawed, searched for a compromise and found it. In exchange for keeping hands off the Southern slave trade until 1808, the national government would be allowed to regulate maritime--and thus slave--trade as a general principle.
At the same time, South Carolina succeeded in further protecting slavery by getting passed a motion that came to be known as the "fugitive slave" clause. It ensured that escaped slaves would be returned to owners--an issue that would become a focal point of the tensions precipitating the Civil War.
The Founding Fathers also agreed that for tax purposes and for congressional representation, each slave would be counted as three-fifths of a person.
In her book, "Miracle at Philadelphia," Catherine Drinker Bowen said: "Thus far Mason and (John Dickinson of Delaware) had won their point: A matter that concerned the public good should be transferred from local to central authority, from state to Congress."
Bowen went on, writing that no one had expected to abolish slavery at the convention. "It was the business of delegates to create a constitution for the country as it existed," she wrote, "and if slavery made a mockery of the words freedom, liberty, the rights of man, then those who thought so could have their say on the floor. Without disrupting the convention and destroying the union, they could do no more. The time had not yet come."
Don E. Fehrenbacher, a retired history professor at Stanford and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, said that as a practical matter: "You can imagine what would have happened to a Constitution that gave women the right to vote and freed the slaves. They had to write a Constitution that was going to be acceptable."
Compromised, the convention proceeded to complete its historic work. But contrary to the Founding Fathers' hope that slavery was not an overriding issue and would die out on its own, the institution survived almost 80 years, during which Mason's state of Virginia became a veritable breeding ground of slaves for all who wanted them.
The nation's slave population increased by 1 million in the first 30 years of the 19th Century and had reached a total of 3.5 million by the time the 13th Amendment emancipated slaves in 1865.
In the years leading up to emancipation, abolitionists agitated constantly. Douglass, a brilliant abolitionist, appealed to the practical side of the American conscience, the desire to put on a good face in the international arena.
In a speech in Rochester, N.Y., on Dec. 8, 1850, he called slavery "the sin and the shame of the American people: It is a blot upon the American name, and the only national reproach which need make an American hang his head in shame, in the presence of monarchical governments."
And in the same city two years later, in a Fourth of July speech that foreshadowed the current attitude of many black Americans toward patriotic holidays, Douglass said: "I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common.
"The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you had brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn."